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  • Transportation and Revolt: Pigeons, Mules, Canals, and the Vanishing Geographies of Subversive Mobility by Jacob Shell
  • Dawn Biehler (bio)
Transportation and Revolt: Pigeons, Mules, Canals, and the Vanishing Geographies of Subversive Mobility. By Jacob Shell. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015. Pp. 208. $32.

Che Guevara understood well the importance of subversive modes of mobility for revolution. His 1961 treatise on guerrilla warfare praised the carrier pigeon as a means of confounding communications surveillance, and the mule as a vehicle for powering an alternative economy. In Transportation and Revolt, geographer Jacob Shell shows how subversive movements have used technologies like the mule and the pigeon, and how [End Page 678] authorities suppressed such transport systems, even when they might bring economic benefits for the ruling class.

Shell argues that ruling regimes have starved or abolished the infrastructure for certain modes of transport based on these modes’ association with subversive movements and political “others”—often marginalized laborers and conquered populations. He builds on insights from James Scott’s Seeing Like a State (1998) and Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra (2000), but focuses on moments when fears about mobility “provoked destructive action from ruling elites” (p. 6).

Each of Shell’s chapters or chapter sections explores the history of a “vanished” mode of mobility, examining its technical, economic, and practical prospects at crucial historical junctures. One might assume that these modes were abandoned for “poor technical performance” (pp. 78–79) compared to newer technologies, but such explanations re-inscribe notions of backwardness on the people who worked with, for example, camels or urban freight. In actuality, modes of transport such as the elephant or the canal often held great potential for extracting profit from difficult terrain. Shell reveals scraps of evidence from scattered sources, including novels and linguistic histories. From these we learn that military, imperial, and capitalist authorities regarded with great suspicion the people who used these modes of transport, from canal families in late-nineteenth-century England to backcountry muleteers in early-twentieth-century Appalachia.

The introduction and first two chapters examine animal-powered mobilities that have declined under duress from ruling powers. Shell shows that each creature possesses special ability to maneuver through difficult environments: pigeons through air, mules over mountains, elephants through mud, camels over sand. One compelling story examines the Chukchi sled dog, a small but powerful husky that proved crucial for indigenous nations of the Kamchatka Peninsula as they resisted Russian conquest in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Later, the Soviets banned the Chukchi from breeding their dogs, which the Soviets viewed as better-suited to subversion than to economic activities approved by the state.

Animal studies scholars may find Shell’s discussion of the creatures that supported anti-imperial and anti-capitalist movements too brief. The agency of these animals is not Shell’s primary concern, but he does offer limited descriptions of the biological and perceptual capacities that made each vital to the struggles of the people who worked with them. Furthermore, Shell situates these animals and their expert handlers in the physical geography of particular spaces; the reader feels, for instance, the sticky mud and rushing river currents through which elephants carried mutineers to their refuges during India’s Great Rebellion of the 1850s.

Chapters 3 and 4 develop lengthier investigations of canals in Britain and its empire in the nineteenth century, and New York City’s proposed freight subway in the early twentieth century. With each, investors and [End Page 679] lawmakers abandoned transport proposals after serious planning and debate. Readers may feel strung along as Shell examines and discards alternate explanations for these disinvestment decisions. But in both chapters the ultimate reward is satisfying and persuasive. For example, it takes some careful reasoning to downplay the theory that canals would not have allowed for the same national-scale economic unification that freight trains eventually did. Then, Shell introduces evidence from British law—the 1870s’ Canal Boats Acts—and popular fiction to show how greatly Victorian authorities feared the mobile culture of canal communities. Meanwhile, imperial authorities halted canal proposals for inland Canada to contain Irish American protest movements. The threat of canals and the people...